Understanding Domestic Policy -
an Overview of Clean Water Act and
Safe Drinking Water Act
by Katherine Fite
Enacted in 1948, the Federal Water Pollution Control Act was the basic structure for regulating US waters. It was drastically reorganized and expanded in the early 1970’s and finally amended to what we mainly know today as the Clean Water Act (CWA). Though the CWA deals with US waters and surface water, it does not directly deal with groundwater or water quantity.
The main objective of the CWA is to restore and preserve the chemical, physical and biological integrity of our waters by preventing and regulating pollutant discharge. CWA programs currently use a collective watershed-based approach to dealing with pollution, rather than going by a pollutant or source basis. This approach emphasizes the protection and restoration of whole watersheds in contrary to monitoring one pollutant or one source.
Under the CWA, the EPA has implemented pollution control programs, created several regulatory and non-regulatory ways to reduce point source pollutant discharge into waterways, helped finance municipal wastewater treatment facilities, and managed pollutant run-off from nonpoint sources.
Perhaps the largest part of the CWA is made up of the National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) program. The program’s main objective is to control point source pollution. Point source pollution is the discharge of pollutants by a facility from one source, such as a pipe or sewer.
Under this program, it is against the law to emit any pollutant from a point source into navigable waters without a NPDES permit. These permits place limits on the quantity of pollutants discharged and require the facility to monitor and report their pollutant discharge. These facilities are obligated to provide data that quantifies and identifies the pollutants that they emit. Permits for storm water discharge can also be obtained under the NPDES program. This permit deals with discharge control from the collection and transport of storm water by industrial facilities, city storm sewer systems, or other major contributors of storm water discharge.
Early on, the CWA was mainly focused on point source pollution from facilities such as sewage and wastewater treatment plants. As of late, it has placed more focus on pollutant discharge from nonpoint sources. These are widely distributed pollutants that cannot be traced to one location. Nonpoint source pollution includes agricultural pollutants (fertilizer, insecticide, livestock waste) and urban pollutants (oil, grease). A number of programs at the state level involve assistance and encouragement to major producers of nonpoint source pollution to use better management practices to reduce and prevent the amount of pollutants running off into the waterways.
Other notable portions of the CWA include wetland, estuary and coastal protection programs as well as the Oil Spill Prevention, Control and Countermeasures program. In addition, the CWA outlines guidelines and regulations for biosolid discharge and use and the amount and type of discharge sent to publicly owned treatment works (sewage plants).
Another important piece of legislation used to protect US water systems is the Safe Drinking Water Act (SDWA) passed in 1974. It was first enacted to protect human health by regulating the quality of the public drinking water system. After 1986 and 1996 amendments, the SDWA now also protects public drinking water sources, including rivers, lakes, ground water wells, reservoirs, and springs. In addition, the SDWA does not regulate the private wells that supply less than 25 people.
Under the SDWA, EPA sets standards for public drinking water quality and supervise those (government and private sectors) who implement the standards. Probably the most well known work EPA does under the SDWA is to set standards and regulate the levels of certain contaminants in the drinking water. These include chemical contaminants (arsenic, lead, copper) and microbial contaminants (fecal coliforms, E.coli, Legionella).
As previously mentioned, the SDWA was originally primarily focused on the quality of drinking water. There was more of a regulatory focus, specifically on tap water directly supplying consumers. Contaminants were dealt with after they were detected in the drinking supply and there was no regulation on drinking water sources. The 1996 amendments sought to correct these issues. The significant changes included emphasize on contamination prevention, consumer awareness and public information as an important aspect of safe drinking water, improved scientific studies and reviews and risk assessment, and funding for states and local communities.
The SDWA now allows programs the ability to give public drinking water systems an environmental outlook. Protecting source water provides water sustainability for both public water systems and consumers. The amendment has put focus on the state level to create and implement prevention programs and improve the operation of water systems as to avoid contamination as much as possible. It outlines the importance of risk assessment to determine the susceptibility of source waters and careful monitoring to ensure minimal contamination.
The new SDWA amendments also outline the importance of consumer information. Water suppliers must prepare consumer confidence reports which provides the public with collected data and detailed analyses done on the quality of their drinking water. These suppliers are required to mail an annual report about the system’s source water and the level of contaminants in the drinking water. In addition, consumers must be notified within 24 hours of any drinking water contaminant violation that is a direct threat to human health. It’s also thought that if the public is more aware and addressed on the issues and threats facing their drinking water, they will be vital in preventing and reducing these threats in the future.
On the issue of contaminants, the SDWA seeks to improve contaminant research, review, and selection. Instead of the EPA adding 25 contaminants every three years, they will now select contaminants based on scientific research and reviews and add five contaminants every five years. This allows more time to evaluate the contaminants ability to fill the three criteria that determines a regulated contaminant. To fulfill the criteria, the contaminant must negatively affect human health, occur in public water systems at a level of risk, and regulation must have the potential to reduce health risk. A cost-benefit analysis is also required for new contamination standards to ensure that the benefits of reducing the contaminant will be worth the cost in the long run.
Lastly, the Drinking Water State Revolving Fund was set up to aid states in creating and improving existing public water systems. As mentioned before, there is a greater emphasis on the states to create and implement contamination prevention programs. Part of the SRF allows states to set up these programs to better protect their source waters. The notion behind the fund is that these preventive programs are less costly than treating contaminated water, thus making them cost effective in the long run.
The amendments of the SDWA ensure sustainable, quality public drinking water and water sources for all.
Both the Clean Water Act and the Safe Water Drinking Act have been essential in protecting and improving our nations water, from the coasts and wetlands to our drinking water and groundwater.